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The Roots of Intelligence: The Politics of IQ Testing

Intelligence testing has been mired in political controversy from the very beginning.

The Politics of IQ Testing


Intelligence testing has been mired in political controversy from the very beginning. Recall that Binet intended his test as a means of identifying schoolchildren who would benefit from extra training. In the early years of the 20th century, however, some people—scientists and politicians—put the test to a different use. They noted the fact (still true today) that there was a correlation between IQ and socioeconomic status (SES): People with lower IQ scores usually end up with lower-paid, lower-status jobs; they’re also more likely to end up as criminals than are people with higher IQs. The politicians therefore asked, why should we try to educate these low-IQ individuals? If we know from the start that those with low intelligence scores are unlikely ever to get far in life, then why waste educational resources on them?


In sharp contrast, advocates for the disadvantaged took a different view. To begin with, they often disparaged the tests themselves, arguing that bias built into the tests favored some groups over others. In addition, they argued that the connection between IQ and SES was far from inevitable. Good education, they suggested, can lift the status of almost anyone—and perhaps lift their IQ scores as well. Therefore, spending educational resources on the poor was an important priority, especially since it might be the poor who need and benefit from these resources the most. (For reviews of this history, see S. J. Gould, 1981; Kamin, 1974.)


These contrasting views obviously lead to different prescriptions for social policy, and for many years, those who viewed low scorers as a waste of resources dominated the debate. An example is the rationale behind the U.S. immigration policy between the two World Wars. The immigration act of 1924 (the National Origins Act) set rigid quotas to minimize the influx of what were thought to be biologically “weaker stocks”— specifically, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. To “prove” the genetic intellectual inferiority of these immigrants, a congressional committee pointed to the scores by members of these groups on the U.S. Army’s intelligence test; the scores were indeed substantially below those attained by Americans of northern European ancestry (Figure 11.13).


As it turns out, we now know that these differences among groups, observed in the early 20th century, were due to the simple fact that the immigrants had been in the United States for only a short time. Because of their recent arrival, the immigrants lacked fluency in English and had little knowledge of certain cultural facts important for doing well on the tests. It’s no surprise, then, that their test scores were low. After living in the United States for a while, the immigrants’ U.S. cultural knowledge and English skills improved—and their scores became indistinguishable from those of native-born Americans. This observation plainly undermined the hypothesis of a hereditary difference in intelligence between, say, northern and eastern Europeans, but the proponents of immigration quotas didn’t analyze the results so closely. They had their own reasons for restricting immigration, such as fears of competition from cheap labor. The theory that the excluded groups were innately inferior provided a convenient justification for their policies (Bronfenbrenner, McClelland, Wethington, Moen, & Ceci, 1996; Kamin, 1974; W. Williams & Ceci, 1997).


A more recent example of how intelligence testing can become intertwined with political and social debate grew out of a highly controversial book—The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994). This book, and the debate it set off, showcased the differences among racial groups in their test scores: Whites in the United States (i.e., Americans of European ancestry) had scores that averaged roughly 10 points higher than the average score for blacks (Americans of African ancestry). Herrnstein and Murray argued that these differences had important policy implica-tions, and urged (among other things) reevaluation of programs that in their view encouraged low-IQ people to have more babies.


Herrnstein and Murray’s claims were criticized on many counts (e.g., Devlin et al., 1997; S. Fraser, 1995; R. Jacoby & Glauberman, 1995; R. Lynn, 1999; Montagu, 1999; Neisser et al., 1996; and many more). There has been considerable debate, for example, about their interpretation of the test scores as well as about whether “race,” a key con-cept in their argument, is a meaningful biological category. We’ll return to these points later; for now, it’s enough to note that these questions have profound political importance, so it’s imperative that we ensure policy debates are informed by good science.


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